Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin, 1991, 236 p, plus xviii p Introductory essay by Mary McCarthy and 12 p Index.

 Pale Fire   cover

On the face of it an exploration of the last work of a recently murdered US poet, John Shade of Wordsmith College, New Wye, Appalachia, with a foreword by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, the poem itself and the narrator’s commentary on it, Pale Fire (that poem’s title as well as this novel’s) is actually something else again. Or several things again.

The foreword gives the narrator’s account of how the poem was written (on eighty index cards) and how he came to be in charge of both its editing and publication but also provides hints of the shifting ground the text in front of the reader embodies. Kinbote’s relationship with Shade and his wife Sybil (names here tend to the symbolic,) is not particularly friendly; Kinbote comes across as something of a stalker and voyeur. Other academics’ doubts about the poem or its significance are dismissed as nonsense. Kinbote slips in references to his origins in the country of Zembla and his translations of previous Shade poems into Zemblan. That Kinbote lives in a house rented from a Professor Goldsworth – also of Wordsmith College – rings bells to a Spoonerist (compare Wordsworth and Goldsmith, noted poets.) In this section Kinbote suggests his commentary ought to be read before Shade’s poem. Perhaps I should have taken that advice but I doubt it makes much difference. The book seemed to read perfectly well in the printed order and the poem is comprehensible enough on its own in any case.

The poem itself, in four Cantos of two different lengths but symmetrical overall, amounting to 999 lines – each an iambic pentameter – is comprised of rhyming couplets but never at any time reduces to doggerel. Kinbote asserts the poem is actually 1000 lines long, as its first was also to be its last but was never written down. (For the symmetry, it would have to be.)

The meat of the book is in the commentary, though, where Kinbote’s conviction that he supplied Shade with the idea for his poem with his reminiscences of Zembla becomes increasingly hard to credit, mixed up as it is with his potted history of Zembla and its last king, Charles the Beloved, its revolution and the king’s unlikely escape though an underground passage used by his grandfather for illicit liaisons with an actress in the theatre where she performed. Kinbote parallels the writing of the poem to and with the journey from Zembla to the US of Jakob Gradus, a gunman hired by the new Zemblan regime’s secret police to kill the king. Gradus is also known as Jacques d’Argus, Jacques Derges and Jack Grey. This last is the name Shade’s killer, an escapee from a lunatic asylum, gave to the police. Through it all Kinbote, whose name is more likely Botkin, a refugee from Zembla teaching in the Russian Department at Wordsmith’s, gradually reveals his true identity as that last king (or, at least, of his belief in that identity) and that he was the intended target of the gunman. But even his account of the shooting is suspect, as the two witnesses, Gradus and a gardener who intervened to restrain him, recall things differently in later statements to the police. Nabokov is not only presenting us with an unreliable narrator but also an unreliable commentator.

Perhaps I ought to mention that at one point Kinbote relays to us Shade’s disquisition on the use of the word “coloured” to refer to “negroes.”

Mary McCarthy’s essay calls the book, “a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé egg, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat and mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” It is all of these and more. Pale Fire is an astonishing feat of construction. An intellectual maze, a hall of distorting mirrors, but still utterly readable. A portrait of an unhinged mind convinced it is entirely rational, a fillip to those who delight in the use of such words as pudibundity, fatidic and inenubilable (even if they have to look them up.) Food for the mind, if not quite the heart.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introductory essay; Gradus’ (Gradus’s.) For some of the others I wasn’t sure these were real typos or indications that Kinbote was deranged: sleezy (sleazy,) “another boy, another boy” (why the repetition?) “the harmonies hiving in the man” (hiving?) Keats’ (Keats’s,) momento (memento,) demolishment (demolition, but this was in dialogue,) John Slade (Shade,) sprung (sprang,) “harebreath escapes” (hairsbreadth escapes,) confusely (confusedly,) hoplessness (hopelessness,) Ukranian (Ukrainian,) remindful (reminiscent,) ginko (ginkgo.)

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